The walk back, more loss. When I open the door it’s over, so I set to piddling: tidy end tables, check the mail, draw a bath. The restless energy finally settles as I pass the mirror. I peer into it. My nose touches glass. Not much left, already effaced, not even a cross to speak of. A smudge. A few black soot stains like pinpoints on the forehead. The rest of the blessed ash has vanished to a grey amorphousness, to symbolize . . . not much. Except a wish for those hallowed moments to be followed by sustaining confidence. Except spirit, which means to shun its listless weight for yearning, awkward if not more earnest prayer and fasting in the clear face of dust.
Now forty winters have besieged this brow that bears the mark of ashes once again, its shallow furrows yielding to time’s plow as, on command, I turn and turn again. With every year the mark goes deeper still and stays there longer than the year before, reminding me, despite my flesh’s will, there comes a spring when I’ll be marked no more.
Yet still I bow and part my graying hair to make way for the dust that makes us all, the mortal touch, the cross traced in the air, the voice that tells me to regard the fall that each of us must know before we rise and raise unwrinkled brows to greet God’s eyes.
How can children read, with words wobbling any way they feel like? Spelling shows up as speling, and spelin spills to spleen. Stolen bases slide to stollen basis. There’s no Too Far, no leash to keep the feral hound from escape, no property line between ideas, no surveyor to fasten edges.
And if Johnson doesn’t finish soon, words might wander further into wildness, soar like index cards in a hurricane, and scatter like so much litter. Or worse— careen like bullets into meanings, blowing every deal to pieces.
If he finishes, you could be stuck in a poem entirely on spelling, longing for rescue from the strait- jacket they tied us into so we can read and write this. How fragile the guide rope of logic seems between us! How tenuous sweet mutual understanding!
Sam Johnson, in your stained shirt, big as Fleet Street, rehearsing for the thousandth time your smudgy slips of paper, you’ve never finished anything on time, you rarely finish. This is a prayer for you. But shall I bless or curse?
In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate W. H. Auden
In this dark time, I want to make light bigger, to throw it in the air like a pizza chef, to stick my fists in, stretching it till I can get both arms into radiance to the elbow spinning it above us.
But oh, dark is such a genius at argument, using all the rhetorical figures. And you aren’t bad yourself, Mr. Auden, elucidating war, how it subtracts and subtracts light till each nation becomes a blind man alone in his own dark, gripping his cane, unable to cross to his lover who waits by the pizza parlor. Unable even to see her, unable to sing out to her the way a lover might sing out, Susan, it’s you!
In truth, the dark is that personal, fluttering like a red moth behind my eyelids. My Texas cousin lies dead this afternoon and his widow’s at the Funeral Home with their child, trying to explain where he went. Isn’t that the brilliant final move of dark, Poof! to separate us from each other? Between us, Mr. Auden, you and I have multiplied
the dark till some might say there’s no escape. But seeing darkness is seeing something. Maybe that’s why, as Susan crosses to the blind man, I notice the horizon begins leaking into the sky. Light reaches the treetops. It falls in chutes. And then, god help us, like everything, it breeds and breeds.